Remember when the Apple Cup mattered more than anything else on the local sports ledger?
When the annual showdown between Washington and Washington State wasn’t just a football game but a kind of verbal sparring match that engaged both players and fans for an entire week?
The intrastate rivals will meet for the 108th time Friday afternoon at Husky Stadium, which might be news to you. Apple Cup anticipation is as obsolete as an operator-assisted call dialed from a phone booth.
Even though the Cougars are assured of a bowl invitation and the Huskies remain eligible for one, even though both teams are in an upswing mode that figures to find the schools contending for a berth in next season’s conference championship game, the 2015 Apple Cup is running on empty.
I moved to Tacoma 25 years ago, and the contrast between now and then is startling. Some of that — OK, most of that — has to do with the fact the Huskies no longer are the national powerhouse they were under Don James. When a Rose Bowl bid and potential No. 1 poll ranking is in the mix, it has a way of energizing the event.
But other factors have contributed to Apple Cup malaise, beginning with the Seattle Seahawks. The two-time defending NFC champs embodied the definition of bland during the early 1990s. A multitude of adjectives can describe the 5-5 Seahawks, but “bland” isn’t among them.
Speaking of bland: We’ve not heard a word about the Apple Cup from any Washington player. Coach Chris Petersen has made his team unavailable to the media because of, let’s see, Thanksgiving, the short practice week, parents showing up and a team banquet.
“We’ve got a lot of things going on here, with all the distractions,” Petersen said the other day. “So we just thought, listen, the last thing they need to do is talk about — they’re thinking about it enough, and it’s time for us to just kind of pay attention to what we need to pay attention to.”
Of course. Two or three players sharing their thoughts on a storied college football rivalry, during interviews that can last as long as 10 minutes, is a distraction no team wants.
Petersen’s aversion to Apple Cup hype is understandable. The former UC Davis quarterback served as an assistant at his alma mater before accepting similar stints at Pittsburgh, Portland State, Oregon and Boise State, where he established himself as an elite head coach. It’s likely Petersen never watched an Apple Cup until he was required to stand on the UW sideline last November.
Cougars coach Mike Leach is also detached from the throw-out-the-record-book, this-is-about-state-pride mentality. Leach went to BYU and developed his offensive philosophy on campuses that dot the map — from Cal Poly to Texas Tech, with stops along the way at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, Kentucky and Oklahoma — before relocating to Pullman.
Leach could pretend to tout the Apple Cup as it were something more meaningful than the 12th game on a 12-game schedule, but public relations is not a skill that interests him.
Former UW coach Rick Neuheisel, by contrast, wasn’t merely adept at public relations. He was a world-class spin doctor. Despite having no ties to the region, he contrived the notion of the Huskies and Cougars, along with Oregon and Oregon State, competing for what he termed the “Northwest Championship.”
(Pardon the digression, but it seems to me that Neuheisel’s wit, charm and smarts are a perfect fit for his post-coaching gig as a TV studio analyst. He’s really good.)
Neuheisel was all-in on the Apple Cup rivalry. So were Mike Price, Bill Doba and Paul Wulff at WSU, and Jim Lambright and Keith Gilbertson on this side of the state.
Which brings me to Tyrone Willingham, the former Huskies head coach with a pulse rate that measured 60 per week. Willingham’s 2008 team was dreadful. It took an 0-10 record into the Pullman, almost as bad as the 1-10 mark of Wulff’s Cougars.
Some pundits referred to that historically irrelevant Apple Cup as the “Crapple Cup,” and the euphemism was generous.
Anyway, the worst UW team ever to take the field faced a Washington State team that was in the same discussion. The forecast called for three hours of unwatchable ugliness.
But the game wasn’t unwatchable, and wasn’t entirely ugly. Mocked as laughing stocks, the Huskies threw every weak punch they had. So did the Cougars, who pulled out a 16-13 victory in two overtimes.
If excitement and suspense could be conjured from a 2008 Apple Cup between teams with a collective record of 1-20, I’ve got to believe excitement and suspense will be conjured Friday afternoon at 12:30.
With a year’s worth of bragging rights at stake, the Huskies and Cougars are serious about sustaining a grudge that began in 1900. They don’t like each other, and the animosity extends to the depth of their souls.
Or so I’ve heard.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org